Bowing to a firestorm of criticism over vandalism committed by members of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team at the Nagano Olympic village, team captain Chris Chelios on Friday sent an apology and a check for $3,000 to the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee on behalf of his teammates.
However, in keeping with the team’s stance of not informing on one another despite possible sanctions that include a ban on players’ future Olympic participation, no one was cited by name.
“Certain conduct by a few members of our team . . . was inexcusable,” the Chicago Blackhawk defenseman wrote to the Japanese Olympic committee in a letter he signed on the team’s behalf. “I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the people of Japan, the Japanese Olympic committee, the USOC, and to all hockey fans throughout the world.
“Bitter frustration at our own level of play caused a few team members to vent their anger in a way which is not in the tradition of NHL/Olympic sportsmanship.”
Ten chairs were broken, including six that were tossed into a courtyard, three fire extinguishers were set off and one was thrown into a garden area hours after the U.S. team lost to the Czech Republic in the tournament quarterfinals. In addition, damage was done to walls and floors, and nearby U.S. speedskaters were disturbed as they slept.
Officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Hockey could not be reached for comment. NHL Vice President Arthur Pincus, whose organization’s investigation of the Feb. 19 incident failed to turn up proof of the culprits’ identity, said he would reserve comment until he was sure of the letter’s authenticity.
Jim DeMaria, the Blackhawks’ director of public relations, said Chelios faxed the letter to him Friday from Tampa, Fla., where Blackhawks will play the Tampa Bay Lightning today, and asked him to make it public.
“We talked about it, and Chris has his reasons,” DeMaria said. “Hopefully, this puts closure on it and we can all get back to playing hockey, which is what we should be doing.”
The letter came two days after USOC officials announced they would settle for a genuine apology and restitution to resolve the incident rather than resorting to dramatic measures such as banning all 23 players from future Olympics. The USOC said it would give players a week to come forward or apologize.
The letter was also a dramatic turnaround after weeks of silence and defiance from players, who insisted the incident had been blown out of proportion. New York Islander defenseman Bryan Berard had even said the players “would go down as a team.”
The only player who seemed contrite was Mighty Duck goaltender Guy Hebert, the third goalie at Nagano, who said last week, “Maybe it is time to set everything straight and put this to rest for sure. . . . The thing I feel bad about is the Japanese people were so good to us and gracious and classy, they may feel they did something wrong. Maybe USA Hockey and the USOC together should make a formal apology.”
Only Thursday, Chelios’ boss, Blackhawk President Bill Wirtz, accused hockey officials of hounding players and defended them for not identifying the vandals.
“They were eliminated from competition, which is the worst thing that can happen to a hockey player, and in their frustration, they broke some chairs,” Wirtz said in an open letter to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Olympic officials. “This entire incident has been blown completely out of proportion.”